Nonentities are sometimes rendered significant by the events that surround them. Take, for instance, Martha Dodd, a silly woman whose judgment was clouded by her libido. In 1933, at the age of 24, she went to Germany with her father, William, the newly appointed American ambassador. That move gave her the opportunity to sleep her way through Berlin, instead of her native Chicago.

Handsome Nazis convinced her that all was wonderful under Hitler. “She just liked sleeping with attractive men,” one of her friends observed, “and that’s how she learned about politics and history.” In truth, she did not learn much.

When Dodd tired of Nazis, she decided the Soviets were much more interesting and started sleeping with them instead. She is perhaps the most bizarre character in Andrew Nagorski’s “Hitlerland,” but not by much. Interwar Germany was a strange place that attracted strange visitors. Nagorski has collected the recollections of these travelers, or at least the American ones. Their accounts are knitted into an interesting narrative of Adolf Hitler’s rise. “Hitlerland” tells a familiar story in an American accent.

The cover boasts that the book contains some big names, including George Kennan, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Owens, Edward R. Murrow, Sinclair Lewis and Richard Helms. But they in fact have small parts. The meat of the testimony comes from lesser figures such as the journalists Sigrid Schultz and Hubert Knickerbocker, the embassy official George Messersmith, and the military attache Truman Smith. Their recollections are bulked out with some fascinating trivialities.

As Nagorski points out, Berlin was, during the interwar period, the most interesting and exciting city on Earth. A sublime and cutting-edge culture was combined with peculiar politics, skyrocketing inflation and a lot of kinky sex. The political drama was rendered all the more fascinating by the shenanigans of a clown called Hitler whom few observers took seriously. Americans were welcomed because they represented the New World, a state of aspiration for Germans. Given the inflation, American dollars were powerful, making the frolics these visitors could enjoy in this land of fantasy all the more intense.

’Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power’ by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster)

Americans reacted to Hitler rather as any other nationality did. First they ridiculed him, then they expressed grudging admiration for the order he brought to Germany. Later, they turned a blind eye to his anti-Semitism, excused his craving for territorial expansion and doubted his appetite for war. A few warned of Hitler’s threat, but they were largely ignored.

Most Americans tolerated German racism precisely because it was directed at Jews. The most striking feature of this book is how easily these visitors grafted themselves onto the prejudices of their hosts. Typical was Donald Watt, who arrived in Germany in 1932 to organize a student exchange. He convinced himself, on no evidence, that “relatively few” Jews were mistreated and decided that the main cause of anti-Semitism was that “a large proportion of all business was in Jewish hands.” In Berlin, hating Jews was the equivalent of high fashion.

The book’s best insights come not from Nagorski but from the would-be journalist Howard K. Smith, who arrived in Germany in 1936, fresh from university. Smith observed four stages of American reaction. The first was admiration: Americans saw neatness, efficiency, prosperity and cleanliness. New to the country, they credited these characteristics to Hitler, instead of realizing that they were essentially German. Stage two brought a recognition of militarism — uniforms, guns, marching and “Heil Hitler” salutes. But since military pageantry was quite exciting, many failed to appreciate the threat it symbolized.

The problem, Smith wrote, was that the vast majority of Americans never progressed beyond stage two, either because their visit was so short or because they had “the sensitivity of a rhinoceros’s hide and the profundity of a tea-saucer.” A tiny few reached stage three, when they began to realize that millions of Germans “were being trained to act merely upon reflexes.” That should have spelled danger but often encouraged fatalism — an assumption that nothing could be done or a belief that the Germans should be allowed to find their own way.

The final stage was fear — a sense of “alarm that the rest of the world had no idea what was rising to confront them.” Only a small minority ever reached that stage. Perception was blocked by myopia, prejudice, inexperience or wishful thinking. Because Americans feared war, they refused to acknowledge the signs that war was coming.

“Hitlerland” is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Reading about the Nazis is not supposed to be fun, but Nagorski manages to make it so. His touch is light, his point of view intentionally detached. The analysis is consequently woefully thin — these witnesses should have had more criticism directed toward them. There’s nothing particularly original or illuminating in this book, but it does manage to entertain. Readers new to this story will find “Hitlerland” fascinating, but, with interest piqued, they should then turn to the more complete and rigorous accounts offered by Ian Kershaw or Richard Evans.

“Hitlerland” is a story of naivete, of wishful thinking, of omens unheeded. Strip away the trivialities and banalities that overpopulate this book, and what emerges is a chronicle of dangerous hypocrisy. Americans excused and sometimes celebrated crimes that they would have roundly condemned in their own country. Raised on liberty, they were incredibly tolerant of its destruction. This is a familiar story, but we should occasionally take the time to reacquaint ourselves with it.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the author of “The Bomb: A Life.”


American Eyewitnesses
to the Nazi Rise to Power

By Andrew Nagorski

Simon & Schuster. 385 pp. $28